What's Up With Plum Island?

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plum island aerial

While sitting on the beach in Old Lyme, Connecticut, this past summery weekend, I watched a fleet of small fishing boats in Long Island Sound and Plum Gut catching all sorts of fish. Also in plain view was Plum Island and its accompanying Plum Island Animal Disease Center. It got me thinking: What’s up with that place?

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The latest Plum Island news came this year in July. The U.S. House of Representatives voted to block the sale of the 800-plus-acre island, which includes an 1860 lighthouse that’s on the National Register of Historic Places and a host of other buildings — some in current use for animal research and others abandoned since World War II. So, now what? The Senate has to go along with the House and vote against the sale. And then they have to come up with a plan.

I got a chance to visit Plum Island several years ago with a group from the Mystic Seaport Museum. Homeland Security required us to send in our passports for clearance ahead of time. We reached the island via a ferry from Old Saybrook, Connecticut, and were allowed to bring lunch, water bottles and snacks with us. But all of that had to be left on Plum Island when we left — and they checked!

Lab 257

An old, blue school bus met us at the ferry dock. The number of people in our group exactly matched the number of seats on the bus. After a two-minute ride to the visitors center, we seated ourselves in a classroom to hear what was going on with the island. It was interesting how everyone in our group had some ideas of their own about the place. Our hosts did not encourage us to share them. The spokesperson went so far as to label the book LAB 257 (named after a building there) as “a work of fiction” before anyone even asked about it. And several of us were prepared to mention it.

We took a short tour of the island on our way back to the ferry dock. Plum Island is very pretty, with several beaches and plenty of lovely flora and fauna, partly because there are no deer (and, no ticks!). We left with very few definitive answers about this mysterious place. Yes, they are doing scientific research. Yes, the research lab may move to Kansas. Yes, the ferry will take you back to Saybrook. No, you may not walk around. The island does have a small gift shop, and I purchased a few copies of the Plum Island Cookbook there. The recipes are all by employees who have worked on the island, and it was a fun Christmas present to give out that year!

plum island demille

I recommend two Plum Island-related books if you’re interested. Nelson Demille’s Plum Island is a murder mystery (Warner Books, 1997) that definitely sets the scene. There’s also the aforementioned LAB 257 (William Morrow, 2004) by local Long Island lawyer Michael Carroll. His goal in writing the book, he says, was to point out flaws in Plum Island security and the ways they conduct research. There’s a government website about Plum Island and a Preserve Plum Island Facebook page if you’d like to find out more.